Nov 16, 2017

Shawnee State Park

Cassidy and I walk the Lake Shore Trail around Shawnee Lake in Shawnee State Park in Bedford County.
I grew up near several lakes, creeks and rivers in and around my hometown of Mountain Top. I spent many years fishing for trout, blue gill, bass and crappie in the Little Wapwallopen and Nescopeck creeks and Blytheburn and Lily lakes. I learned how to paddle canoes on Blytheburn. In recent years, I've gone kayaking on the Ice Lakes, Lily Lake and the Susquehanna River. My family went swimming at Sand Spring Lake in Hickory Run State Park just about every summer during my childhood. I love the serenity I experience while being on the water, but I also revel in the symphony of birds chirping, frogs croaking, leaves rustling and the water rippling around me.

About two years ago, my then-girlfriend (now wife) Cassidy was working for a newspaper and would often talk about her trips to Shawnee State Park for assignments. I had heard about the park before but never visited it. Shawnee is about 40 minutes southwest of Altoona/Hollidaysburg. That's not a far drive considering I travel the same distance to hike trails in Huntingdon County; those destinations can take anywhere between 45 minutes and an hour to reach.

Cassidy told me Shawnee State Park features a gorgeous lake that we could walk around. She said "lake," and that was all the persuasion I needed.

The first thing I noticed on my inaugural trip to Shawnee State Park was how big the lake is. Shawnee Lake comes in at 451 acres in size, according to the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. In comparison, Canoe Lake in Canoe Creek State Park (my go-to park) is only 155 acres, meaning Shawnee Lake is nearly three times larger. Shawnee still doesn't match up to huge lakes such as Raystown (nearly 8,300 acres) or Erie (it's one of the Great Lakes; you get the picture), but it's a decent size for a body of water in a state park.

When I saw Shawnee Lake, I thought about how great it would be to kayak and fish on it. While I haven't fished the lake yet, I have kayaked with Cassidy there, and it was one of the most fun times we've had together on the water. The lake is calm, so Cassidy and I were able to paddle in separate kayaks and still keep up with each other.

Cassidy and I kayaking on Shawnee Lake.
Shawnee State Park rents out watercraft including kayaks, canoes and paddleboats for those who cannot bring their own. That's what Cassidy and I wound up doing when we went kayaking. The rentals are charged by the hour, so you can do a quick trip or a daylong excursion on the water if you have the money.

Some days, however, when the temperature is high, I'd rather be in the water instead of on top of it.

Shawnee Lake features a sand beach with a facility that includes changing rooms, sinks, mirrors and working toilets inside stalls. There are also vending machines that sell water, soda and a variety of snacks. The beach is wide, so visitors can spread out and enjoy basking in the sun or taking a dip in the lake without being on top of one another. A grassy area is nearby for those who don't like getting sand everywhere.

The beach is much wider than this. I'm just poor and don't own a wide-angle lens.
In the midst of summer, the lake retains a substantial amount of heat, so it's quite warm -- warmer than the ocean at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, or the Outer Banks in North Carolina, for that matter. The floor of the lake in the swimming area is a mix of mostly sand and some mud, so it doesn't feel slimy. While in the water, you can gaze at the trees and hills surrounding the lake. There's a relaxing atmosphere surrounding the lake, even in the peak of summer when the park is crowded. It provides a quaint retreat from the city. The beach is open for swimming from 8 a.m. to sunset, according to DCNR, usually between Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends.

Not everyone is as intrigued by water as I am, though. Shawnee State Park has other options for landlubbers, too.

Cassidy and I like going on walks together. She told me about a trail at Shawnee that circles the lake, so of course, I wanted to try it.

This is the Lake Shore Trail -- a 3.4-mile-long walking and cycling path that encompasses a large portion of Shawnee Lake -- and it's now one of my favorite short-distance trails anywhere. It's the park's second-longest trail, but it's the most beautiful. The Lake Shore Trail takes walkers and bike riders around the tree-covered "coast" of the lake, across the dam that maintains the water levels, and by the sand beach I mentioned earlier. The trail is well maintained and lacks drastic changes in elevation, so it's accommodating to anyone whom favors taking a pleasant stroll around the lake and park. At a moderate pace, the Lake Shore Trail can be completed in about an hour.

The Lake Shore Trail is shaded in most spots.
The Lake Shore Trail passes over the dam for Shawnee Lake.
The Lake Shore Trail stays close to the water, offering wonderful views of Shawnee Lake.
Walker and hikers are not limited to the Lake Shore Trail, though. Including the LST, Shawnee State Park contains 16 miles of hiking trails, according to DCNR.

The longest footpath is the Forbes Trail coming in at 3.8 miles. If that sounds familiar, it's because the trail takes its name after Forbes Road, the route that British Gen. John Forbes took during his campaign to take over Fort Duquesne from the French in present-day Pittsburgh. According to DCNR, Forbes and some other guy in the British army named George Washington camped within the boundaries of present-day Shawnee State Park during the Forbes Road expedition in 1758. The Forbes Trail in the park follows some of Forbes and Washington's route, according to DCNR. It's kind of exhilarating to say you walked in the footsteps of the eventual first president of the United State.

Shawnee State Park offers several other outdoor activities, including a nine-hole disc golfing course; ice skating, sledding and snowmobiling during the winter (in certain locations, obviously); and fishing, with potential prizes including smallmouth and largemouth bass, northern pike, walleye, muskellunge, pickerel, catfish, crappie, yellow perch, bluegill, sunfish, sucker, bullhead and carp, according to DCNR.

Maybe all these activities sound like they take a lot of effort, but you just want to relax and do nothing for a while. Shawnee State Park includes numerous pavilions and picnic tables to have a charming lunch by the lake. For a long-term stay at the park, visitors can camp at one of the 290 camping sites. The sites have various accommodations including camping, cottages and yurts, according to DCNR.

By now, you should have found something you can do at Shawnee State Park. My recommendation is going on a summer day when you can walk the Lake Shore Trail, kayak for an hour or so to take in the scenery (maybe fish while you're out there) and then head for a swim at the beach to cool off and relax. It will feel like a mini-vacation to the shore -- all within central Pennsylvania.

Oct 29, 2017

The Yuengling brewery

The Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory of beers.
Whenever I write blog posts, I conduct a bit of research beforehand. My primary sources tend to be websites, while secondary references might include historical plaques at the location or books on the subject. On average, I spend about one to two days reading up on the topic.

For this post, I've compiled "a lot" of "research" over the span of several years. Depending on who you ask, that could be dedication or a problem.

That's because I'm talking about drinking Yuengling -- Pennsylvania's most renowned beer.

Its reputation is so large that, when some Pennsylvanians say they want a "lager," the bartender knows to pour Yuengling. The popularity of "America's Oldest Brewery" doesn't stop at the state border, though. Yuengling's distribution has gained so much ground over the years that the brewery touted the highest beer sales volume of any craft brewery in the United States in 2016, according to the Brewers Association, a not-for-profit trade group. Even more impressive is the fact that Yuengling came in fourth in beer sales volume among every major beer company in America that same year, being bested only by Anheuser-Busch Inc. (first), MillerCoors (second) and Pabst Brewing Co. (third).

To be fair, how do you expect Yuengling to compete with a beer that was named "America's Best Beer" 124 years ago?
That second ranking is impressive when you consider how Yuengling is an independent brewery and Anheuser-Busch owns more than 50 beer brands, some of the more notable ones including Bud Light, Budweiser, Busch, Goose Island, Hoegaarden, Land Shark, Michelob Ultra, Natural Light (Natty Light), O'Doul's, Rolling Rock, Shock Top and Stella Artois. The full list is below.

I think part of the reason beer lovers show so much admiration for Yuengling is not just because of its quality, but because it has remained independent for more than 185 years and has fended off challenges including the Great Depression and Prohibition. There is a threat that continues to loom over independent breweries such as Yuengling, however.

One of the biggest fears among craft brewing organizations and beer aficionados is large-scale companies buying out smaller brands in an attempt to consolidate the industry. An example in our state was Rolling Rock, a beer that was produced in Latrobe from 1939 until 2006, when Anheuser-Busch bought the brand for $82 million, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette at the time. Rolling Rock's production left Latrobe and went to New Jersey instead.

A beer brand being bought out after almost seven decades of local production alarms craft brewers who favor a competitive market with mostly independent breweries. Rolling Rock is just one of several beer brands that have been sucked into larger beer companies.

To be fair, the owners of these independent breweries made the choice to sell their brand. It's not like Anheuser-Busch is using eminent domain to seize brands by force. But the thought of a longtime family-owned company such as Yuengling being owned by anyone other than the family would be upsetting to many who favor businesses with roots in their communities.

Judging by Yuengling's commitment to keeping the company in the family -- in addition to its recent business decisions over the past few years -- I think it will remain an independent brewery for some time.

Cheers to that.
The Yuengling family's dedication to beer goes back to the brewery's founding in 1829 by David G. Yuengling. At the time, David Yuengling called the facility "Eagle Brewery," which was located on Centre Street in Pottsville, according to the Yuengling website. The name "Eagle Brewery" explains why Yuengling's iconic logo features a bald eagle standing on a beer barrel.

It didn't take long for Yuengling to experience his first setback. A fire destroyed Eagle Brewery about two years after it started operations. Instead of accepting defeat, David Yuengling had a new brewery built on Mahantongo Street in 1831. This facility is the iconic burgundy building that remains in Pottsville today.

The brewery would stay in the Yuengling family when David Yuengling's son, Frederick, joined his father as a business partner. The brewery's name changed to D.G. Yuengling & Son in 1873 when the partnership was formed, according to the Yuengling website. The name has stuck since then.

Frederick Yuengling would help increase the brewery's production by adding a bottling line to the plant in 1895. Shortly after, Frederick died in 1899 at the rather-young age of 51. He had only one son, Frank, who took over the brewery's operations, the website says.

I'm unsure of what the brewery's fate would have been if Frank decided against taking the reins, since both David and Frederick were deceased by that point. Regardless, Frank must have embraced the beer industry because he would go on to lead the Yuengling brewery for more than six decades. In that time, Frank would experience significant milestones and challenges.

Frank Yuengling faced the largest threat to alcohol during his leadership at the brewery: Prohibition. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibited alcohol across the United States, was ratified in 1919. This should have been a death sentence for the Yuengling brewery, but it decided to improvise in the meantime.

According to the Yuengling website, the brewery began producing "near beer products." The website doesn't really specify what these "near beer products" were, but after looking around online, I found out that some contemporary "non-alcoholic beers" contain about 0.5 percent alcohol by volume, which means it has a similar taste to normal beer but without the fun. In comparison, Yuengling's Traditional Lager today is 4.4 percent ABV. To put that into perspective, you would need to drink about nine Yuengling "near beers" to experience the same buzz of just one Yuengling Traditional Amber Lager. Seems like more effort than it's worth. Isn't the point of beer to relax and NOT work?

Yuengling whipped up another idea to keep business afloat during Prohibition: ice cream. In 1920, Yuengling constructed a dairy across the street from the brewery as a way to bring in revenue while beer was illegal, according to the Yuengling website. This dairy still stands today, and visitors who take a tour of the brewery not only get to see the inside of the ice cream facility, but they get to sample Yuengling beers at a bar there. How many ice cream places do you know of where you can get a buzz?

Joking aside, the dairy no longer produces ice cream. However, another member of the Yuengling family has brought the ice cream back, and it is available for purchase. You can find that information here.

I scream, you scream, we all scream for ... lager!
The Yuengling brewery did manage to mark a major milestone during Prohibition. In 1929, Yuengling celebrated 100 years as a brewery, though it could legally only do so with its near beer products. That must have been one bittersweet office party.

It would take another four years before Yuengling could truly celebrate, but in 1933, Prohibition ended, and the brewery recognized the event by producing "Winner Beer." Yuengling sent a truckload of the special beer to President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a token of the brewery's gratitude, according to its website.

The Yuengling brewery survived Prohibition, and Frank Yuengling would go on to lead the company until his death in 1963 at the age of 86. During his lifetime, Frank managed the brewery as president and chairman of the board for 64 years, according to the Yuengling website. Upon his death, Frank's sons, Richard L. and F. Dohrman Yuengling, took over the brewery's management.

In the coming years, the brewery achieved more recognition. In 1976, Yuengling was put on national and state registers as "America's Oldest Brewery," according to its website. Three years later, the brewery celebrated 150 years of business.

The brewery continued to stay in family hands when Richard L. "Dick" Yuengling Jr. bought the business from his father and became president in 1985, according to the company website. Dick Yuengling remains the brewery's figurehead today.

Since assuming control of Yuengling, Dick has increased the brewery's reputation and operations more than ever before. In 1987, he reintroduced "Yuengling Traditional Amber Lager," which is now the company's "flagship brand," according to its website.

I assure you, I have this only for journalistic purposes.
At one point, Yuengling grew so massive in popularity that it had trouble keeping up with demand. According to the company's website, Yuengling withdrew from markets outside the local area in 1996. About two years later, Dick Yuengling resolved the supply-and-demand issue by announcing plans to build a second brewery in nearby Mill Creek, which is about 3 miles from the original site.

Yuengling also purchased the former Stroh's brewery in Tampa, Florida, in 1999 to expand production. Yuengling began making beer in Florida that summer, according to the company website. The Mill Creek brewery began production two years later. Yuengling surpassed 2 million barrels of beer in 2009, according to the brewery's website. Three years later, Yuengling became the largest U.S.-owned brewery, and two years after that, it celebrated 185 years in business, the website says.

The Yuengling family's dedication to its brewery and brand should be evident by this point in my post. Based off its expansion and beer sales volume numbers, the Yuengling brewery looks like it will continue to be a mainstay in family hands in Pennsylvania for some time. 

It's worth mentioning that anyone who appreciates beer and history ...

This goober.
... can witness firsthand how Yuengling beer is produced from start to finish. The Yuengling brewery is open for public tours for people of all ages. The tours are free, and they end with free beer samplings. Beats any museum tour you've ever taken, right?

All you have to do is go to the Yuengling brewery's gift shop inside the old dairy building and reserve your spot on the tour. You can find tour dates and times by clicking this link:

My brother, Cody, convinced me to take one of these tours with him a few months back. I might have been persuaded by the prospect of free beer.

The tour guide starts by taking you across the street into the brewery's basement, where the beer was stored before the advent of refrigeration. The basement includes old wooden barrels and metal kegs used to store beer over the years.

Old metal kegs
Old wooden kegs.
The tour guide then takes you through tunnels in the basement, which stored more beer. Workers dug out these tunnels by hand over the span of 10 years, according to the tour guide. I hope that, if the workers were awarded pension afterward, it included a lifetime supply of Yuengling. I think they deserved it.

In certain areas, you can see layers of brick around some of the tunnel entrances. According to our tour guide, the government made sure to block off the entrances to these tunnels during Prohibition so Yuengling couldn't attempt to bootleg.

All cave tours would be much more exciting if they included beer.
After touring the basement, visitors get to witness more of the operations within the brewery. This includes the fermentation process and canning/bottling. An interesting tidbit of trivia is that the brewery and the canning/bottling facility share only one conveyor belt, which means bottling and canning must be performed on separate days. Cody and I came on a day when Yuengling was canning, so we got to witness hundreds of cans making their way through the building as they were prepared for shipping. Watching the process is quite therapeutic.

The tour ends in the old dairy, where the guide lets guests sample two of any of the Yuengling beers currently in production. I tried two I never drank before: Yuengling Premium (a light-tasting pilsner) and Lord Chesterfield Ale (for people who are photogenic).

What a stud.
According to Cody, the beer sampling inside the dairy is somewhat new. Back when he toured with our friend Alan, Cody said the samples were served at Yuengling's Rathskeller, a small bar within the brewery that was built in 1936, according to the Yuengling website. Cody admits the rathskeller was much smaller, so tourists were crammed in when trying beers. The dairy provides more open space in comparison. The gift shop is also located right behind the dairy's bar, so patrons can get a buzz and then spend money on Yuengling T-shirts, key chains, mugs and growlers.

I might have been influenced by Yuengling's business model.
The Yuengling tours aren't just for beer drinkers. Because it has been around since 1831, the brewery is just as historical as other Pennsylvania buildings like Penn State University's Old Main or the state's Capitol Building. The brewery predates the Civil War and the invention of the automobile and the airplane. It's a significant part of Pennsylvania's heritage.

It'll be interesting to see if Yuengling will continue to be "America's Oldest Brewery" for another 185 years. I'll raise a glass to that, and I'm sure many other Pennsylvanians would, too.

 *** Much of the information for this post came from the Yuengling brewery's official website. You can learn more about Yuengling and see old photographs of the brewery and the Yuengling family here: ***

Jul 10, 2017

The start of our new journey

On a Sunday in May, I woke up my girlfriend Cassidy about 6:30 a.m. and told her to get ready. About a week earlier, we had planned a trip for this day, but she had no idea where we were going. I did. I intended it to be a surprise.

We got dressed, grabbed two bagels to eat during the drive and left the apartment about 7 a.m. The trip would take about two-and-a-half hours, and I had to work that evening, so it was necessary for us to leave early.

The journey took us up Interstate 99, Route 350, Interstate 80 and Route 36 for about 130 miles. About every 5 miles, Cassidy attempted to guess where I was taking her. I refused to give her any hints because I wanted the destination to remain secret. That didn't stop her from trying, though. Cassidy tends to have a terrible sense of direction, but she could tell we were headed west, so she threw around a few possibilities.

Clarion? (the location of our first date)

Pittsburgh? (our favorite city in Pennsylvania)

Lake Erie? (we love the lake and its beaches)
I wished, but not there, either.

The only hint I provided was that it was a location neither of us had visited before. With how vast western Pennsylvania is, that left numerous options for Cassidy to ponder. At times, she browsed Google Maps on her phone and scanned the western portion of the state hoping to debunk the mystery. I got frustrated and told her to stop because I didn't want her to spoil the surprise. She consented and decided to enjoy the ride there in the meantime.

Coming up Route 36 -- which would take us to our final destination -- I realized how gorgeous this part of Pennsylvania is. Looking at maps, the area appears desolate. Only a few small towns dot the landscape, including two villages that decided to name themselves "Alaska" and "Nebraska." I'm not sure if I'll ever get the chance to explore these states in my lifetime, but at least I can say I "passed through both of them" on a road trip.

Your alternative options boil down to that town with the groundhog or the other one where oil was first discovered. Don't get too excited.
Route 36 passes through some of the most natural portions left in Pennsylvania, including Cook Forest State Park and the Allegheny National Forest. Parts of this roadway in this section of the state cut through dense forests with huge, towering trees. Locals have taken advantage of the rural beauty by establishing several campgrounds, deer farms, horseback riding trails, miniature amusement parks, resorts and cabins. Cassidy and I were impressed by all the recreation options in such a large swath of remote Pennsylvania. If we weren't pressed for time, we might have stopped at one or two of these places and made a short vacation out of it.

After 130 miles, our journey brought us to our destination: Tionesta, a tiny borough of about 460 residents in Forest County. Cassidy had no idea this place existed until we drove into town. I've lived in Pennsylvania all my life and only found out about Tionesta last year.

Like most small Pa. towns, Tionesta has a charming main street with mom-and-pop shops that sell all sorts of trinkets, a few local eateries and a lodge or two. But we weren't here to see any of that. My reason for driving more than two hours on a work day was a small island just outside of town.

We pulled into a parking lot on the island and exited the car. Cassidy seemed a bit confused why we stopped here. I then pointed out a lighthouse. If you look at the map above, you'll notice Tionesta isn't near an ocean; it borders the Allegheny River, and the lighthouse sits on an island in the river. How many lighthouses have you heard of that are located on a river? In addition, how many lighthouses do you know of that are on a river in Pennsylvania? It's an oddity I wanted to witness for a while, but I had another reason to drive two-and-a-half hours just to see it.

I needed to buy some time first. To my fortune, Lighthouse Island -- where the lighthouse is located (duh) -- features a trail about a mile long that follows the perimeter of the land. I suggested to Cassidy that we should walk the path for a bit and check out the surrounding landscape. She agreed.

Lighthouse Island is "technically" in the middle of the Allegheny River, though the island's east bank is separated by a trickle of water about the size of a small creek. In times of extreme drought, I can imagine this strip of water evaporating and converting the island into a peninsula. Regardless, most of the island is surrounded by the Allegheny, in addition to numerous hills that rise above the river's banks. Cassidy and I have seen hills and rivers plenty of times in central Pennsylvania, but something about this area seemed enchanting. As we walked the path, we stopped a few times to take in the beauty of the scenery.

We started to near the end of the trail on the island's west bank. While strolling around, I noticed two women walking the trail on the opposite side of the island. I wanted to get a decent picture of Cassidy and I in front of the lighthouse, so I needed to stall her while I waited for the women to meet up with us. I started by trying to explain to Cassidy why I'm intrigued by lighthouses. but I was distracted because I kept checking to see how far away the women were.

I was a bit nervous, so my message came out in unorganized pieces, but this is what I had in mind: Lighthouses are built to withstand some of the harshest elements. They are battered by hurricanes, blizzards, and in some cases, lightning (I found out later that this lighthouse was struck by lightning on Aug. 26, 2003). No matter the weather, however, lighthouses are resilient and shine through the darkness. I told Cassidy how a lighthouse serves as an excellent symbol for a relationship. We help guide each other when life seems dark and overwhelming. Cassidy and I have dated for more than four years, so we've encountered our share of misgivings -- job loss, depression, sickness, etc. But when one of us seems to be lost in a sea of misfortune, the other shines a light through the darkness and provides assurance that hope and safety is not far off.

I wish my speech had gone this smooth, but I'm a better writer than an orator, so just pretend I said something along these lines. It seemed as though I had been talking forever waiting for these women to reach us. I was running out of material to work with, and I could tell Cassidy was getting a bit antsy to leave.

At last, the walkers approached us, and I asked if they could take our picture. Both of them seemed opposed to the idea at first, and that annoyed me, because I didn't have a backup plan. I guaranteed them I wasn't expecting a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo -- just a snapshot of the two of us and the lighthouse in the background. One of the women then agreed to do it, and I thanked her about a dozen times. I framed the shot to make sure it would come out fine. I handed over the camera, explained how to set the focus and take the picture.

I walked back over to Cassidy and prepared for the photo. Then I accomplished what I had planned to do for almost a year: I got down on my right knee, pulled out a ring box and asked Cassidy Sherman to marry me -- in front of the Sherman Memorial Lighthouse.

Thank God she said "yes," otherwise this blog post would have been awkward.
When I considered ways to propose to Cassidy, I had the Sherman Memorial Lighthouse at the top of my list. Maybe it seems cheesy to some people: "You just found a place that shared her last name and proposed there." Somewhat true, yes, but Cassidy and I both share a passion for the beach, ocean and coastal attractions, including lighthouses. I googled "Sherman Lighthouse" for this post and found that this is one of the only lighthouses with "Sherman" in its name in the United States, other than Point Sherman Lighthouse in Alaska. That would have been a bit of a haul for a proposal. Two-and-a-half hours seemed like an eternity.

What's special about the Sherman Memorial Lighthouse is the reason it was constructed. The conceptual design of the lighthouse was by J. Jack Sherman, a nearby resident who has a passion for maritime towers -- so much so that he decided to build his own. Sherman appreciated lighthouses so much that, when his lighthouse was commemorated on Sept. 17, 2006, it featured a display of about 280 replica lighthouses, according to a plaque at the site.

He also wanted his family's legacy to be remembered. This quote is written on a nearby plaque: "The lighthouse was built as a beneficial landmark for the Tionesta community and to serve as a place to preserve the heritage of the Sherman family."

Although it's named after the Sherman family, the lighthouse is also meant to signify the importance of family in all of our lives. Another plaque mounted on a rock near the Sherman Memorial Lighthouse says the following:
"Every family has a story. Each is no more or less significant than another. It is our most sincere wish that your visit here will encourage you to seek out your own family's story and to reflect upon the legacy each of us leaves behind. May your family's blessings be many. -- The Sherman Family."
The Sherman Memorial Lighthouse served as the perfect site for our engagement. On that day, Cassidy and I committed to starting our own family, in addition to uniting the Sherman and Yermal families (God help Cassidy's parents). Cassidy and I have now begun to write our own "family story" that will carry on for generations to come. It will be a story with conflict and tribulations at times, but I'm confident it will have many happy, funny and enduring memories, as well. I look forward to every chapter of it.

I can't guarantee it will be on the New York Times Best Sellers list, though.

Jul 9, 2017

The Sherman Memorial Lighthouse

The Sherman Memorial Lighthouse sits on Lighthouse Island in the Allegheny River in Tionesta (Forest County), Pa.
I've had an appreciation for lighthouses since I was young. When I used to make drawings, I illustrated several East Coast lighthouses that I had visited and some that I hoped to see one day. Examples included the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse in the Delaware Bay near Lewes, and the Fire Island Lighthouse in New York. These drawings have been lost to time, but my interest in lighthouses persists.

If I'm traveling somewhere and I know there are lighthouses in my proximity, I make it a priority to find them. Back when Cassidy and I visited Lake Erie for the first time in 2013, I refused to return home until I found all three of the Lake Erie lighthouses in Pennsylvania. We accomplished the goal, and I put in a decent amount of time to write a post about those lighthouses.

Please read it to make my carpal tunnel worth it.
I saw the majority of Pennsylvania's lighthouses on that trip because the state has only about a handful of them; however, it's difficult to determine how many lighthouses are in Pa. Some sources claim all of them are on Lake Erie. Another website,, which is my top resource for lighthouse research, lists the three Erie lighthouses and a fourth one called the Turtle Rock Lighthouse, which sits on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia.

To my knowledge, the "official" total of lighthouses in Pa. is four -- but that depends on what people consider a "lighthouse." If we're willing to bend the rules a bit, then we need to acknowledge a fifth Pennsylvania lighthouse: The Sherman Memorial Lighthouse.

No, it's not a lawn ornament that I photoshopped to appear larger.
The Sherman Memorial Lighthouse is a 75-foot tower that sits atop a small hill on Lighthouse Island in the Allegheny River. It stands just outside the small borough of Tionesta in Forest County, about 110 miles northeast of Pittsburgh.

There are some reasons why the Sherman Light's claim to the state's lighthouse list is debatable.

One key argument is the tower's purpose. Lighthouses were constructed with the intent of acting as geographic landmarks during the day and a signal for mariners at night or during inclement weather. They act as safeguards in some of the more treacherous areas of oceans, seas and even large lakes.

The creator of the Sherman Memorial Lighthouse had a similar idea in mind when designing it, according to information plaques at the site. The designer, J. Jack Sherman, conceived the idea of building a lighthouse in Tionesta in ode to his family's legacy. The light's official groundbreaking was April 24, 2003, according to a plaque.

The following quote is written on one of the plaques near the lighthouse: "The lighthouse was built as a beneficial landmark for the Tionesta community and to serve as a place to preserve the heritage of the Sherman family."

Sherman did have the idea of building his lighthouse as a landmark for Tionesta, but I failed to find any plaque or website stating he had it created to operate as a beacon for troubled sailors on the Allegheny River. It so happens, though, that the Sherman Memorial Lighthouse had a rotating light added to its lantern room on Nov. 10, 2004, according to a plaque. So technically, the Sherman Light could function as a working signal if someone's fishing boat happened to capsize while night fishing on the Allegheny. You never know, right?

The water does look treacherous.
Another factor to take into account is "what can be considered a lighthouse?" If you take the word in its most literal sense, you would argue a "lighthouse" would be a house that emits light. Take a look at pictures of most lighthouses, however, and you'll find they're more of a tower than a livable dwelling. There are exceptions, and it's a coincidence that one of them is the Turtle Rock Lighthouse I mentioned earlier, which is a house-like structure with a tower jetting out of a semi-oval portion of the building. The Presque Isle Lighthouse located near Erie is also attached to a house.

My future home will look something like this.
 Anyway, lighthouses tend to be tall towers with a light source contained in a room made up of glass windows known as the lantern room. Most lighthouses have a spiral staircase that allowed the keeper to climb to the top of the tower to maintain the lantern. The Sherman Memorial Lighthouse fits these descriptions. The lighthouse is 75 feet tall with a diameter of 16 feet, according to a plaque. The tower also features a basement and six floors -- many of which feature historical displays and artwork -- and spiral staircase with 76 steps.

If you need any more proof of the Sherman Memorial Lighthouse's validity, you can check out Pennsylvania's official travel website. The state might not consider it an "official" lighthouse, but it does list it as a tourist attraction, which is what most lighthouses across America are used for these days.

Although I could not climb the Sherman Memorial Lighthouse the day I visited it, I'm confident -- based off the physical structure of the tower and J. Jack Sherman's purpose for it  -- that it can be considered a lighthouse just as much as any you would find along a beach or one of the Great Lakes. If anything, Sherman's lighthouse is one of the most unique family memorials I've ever seen. I think I'm going to have to settle for a 3-foot tall wooden model next to my porch for the "Yermal Memorial Lighthouse."

If you plan to visit all of Pennsylvania's lighthouses, you should put the Sherman Memorial Light on your list. The tower sits on the gorgeous Lighthouse Island on the Allegheny River. This island offers a panoramic view of the river and the rolling hills surrounding it. There is also a gravel trail about a mile long that takes you around the perimeter of the island. It offers a "nautical" atmosphere for walkers and joggers in a landlocked Pennsylvania county.

The lighthouse is open for tours but only on a few dates throughout the year. These tours are handled by the Tionesta Lions Club, and the tour dates can be found on their website. A visit to the Sherman Memorial Lighthouse is likely a long trip for most people, but if you coordinate it with a trip to a place such as Pittsburgh or Lake Erie, the stopover to the lighthouse is a worthwhile endeavor. Tionesta also has some lodging and is close to numerous campgrounds in the Allegheny National Forest and Cook Forest State Park. Make a vacation out of the experience and witness what some people are willing to do to show their devotion to their loved ones.

May 11, 2017

There's no such thing as being "over-prepared"

A few years back, when I was young and naive (a nice way to say "stupid"), I wandered into the woods not far from my parents' house. I had no map, compass, food or water. I just felt like exploring because it seemed like an exciting journey. There was no trail, but I figured I didn't need one because I "knew" the area well enough that I couldn't get lost.

As I said before: young and naive.

No big deal.
It took about 10 minutes of aimless strolling to realize that I had no clue where to go or how to return to my original destination. Panic set in fast. I started running, thinking that -- if there were a way out -- I would get there quicker.

Again: young and naive.

I noticed the sky beginning to darken, which only intensified my anxiety. I increased my pace and refused to let up. At one point, I froze because of something I didn't anticipate to see: a dead deer with a gaping bullet hole in its side.

"I'm going to get shot out here," I concluded. That is, if I didn't remain lost and starved to death first.

A picture of my sanity spiraling out of control.
Finally, after about 20 minutes, I found an opening in the forest that, to my luck, led back to the road where my parents' house is located. For a few days afterward, I refused to leave home without having one end of a rope tied around my waist and the other end secured to the front door of the house.

I learned a lesson from that experience: I was young and naive ... and stupid. I was also unprepared for the occasion. In most conflicts, if you have the proper tools at your disposal, you can work your way toward a solution.

This episode of getting lost in the woods occurred several years ago, but the lesson I learned from it is timeless. There's no such thing as being "over-prepared" for a situation. I must've forgotten this, however, when I recently got screwed over not just once, but twice in the same day.

 In early April, the weather made spring feel like summer with temperatures ranging in the 80s. The average temperature in Altoona for that time of year is in the upper-50s, so I wanted to do something special to take advantage of this unseasonable warmth. I chose to head down to Cumberland, Maryland, for the day to ride my bike on a portion of the Chesapeake & Ohio Towpath Trail, the nearly 185-mile-long path that follows the namesake canal from Cumberland to Georgetown near Washington, D.C.

The C&O Towpath Trail is one of the most beautiful paths you can ride on.
Beforehand, I packed an ample amount of food, a few bottles of water, my camera, cellphone and wallet for the occasion. I mounted my bike onto my car and drove an hour south to Cumberland.

When I arrived, I parked in a lot that is designated for bicyclists. Across the street is a bike shop that I've been in before. It's one of the most well-stocked bike businesses I've seen, so if I needed something for my trip, this was the place to visit. As I was preparing my bike, I looked over at the shop and realized I lacked extra tire tubes and patch kits in case I got a flat tire. I stood there considering whether or not I should go in the shop and purchase these additional supplies just in case. I figured that I've been riding since I was 6 years old, and I've never had a flat tire. I planned to ride the trail for only a few hours that day, and I would be returning to Cumberland on the way back. The idea of getting a flat tire in such a short time span seemed ridiculous to me. I shook off my suspicions, climbed onto my bike and made my way onto the trail.

If something bad happened to my bike, I could swim back to Cumberland via the Potomac River.
The first two-and-a-half hours of my trip went smooth. This was my inaugural major bike ride for the year, so I didn't have much physical conditioning beforehand. Despite this, my muscles felt relaxed; my breathing stayed consistent; I didn't feel exhausted, and my bike, although it is beat up and old, was holding together well. I'm doing great, I thought.

At the rate I was traveling, I would complete nearly 60 miles in about five to six hours. My confidence shot up, and I felt determined I would accomplish my goal that day, which was to ride to the Paw Paw Tunnel in West Virginia. The tunnel is 3,118 feet long and allowed both the C&O Canal and boats to pass through the mountain above them. The tunnel is one of the highlights of the trail, so I made it a priority to reach it that day.

At about 1 p.m., I came within a mile of the Paw Paw Tunnel when I saw a sign saying "Paw Paw" with an arrow pointing to the right. The sign directed me off the trail to a highway that I figured would take me to the tunnel, but instead it led me to the West Virginia town of the same name. I glanced at the small town quick and realized that there wasn't much going on there, so I turned around and made my way back to the trail and tunnel.

Fun fact: Paw Paw has as more churches than residents.
I reached the Paw Paw Tunnel, and upon seeing it, I grinned with excitement and astonishment. The tunnel is gorgeous, with the bike trail running parallel to the canal all the way through. The tan stone of the entrance seemed to glisten against the dark gray rock surrounding it.

The Paw Paw Tunnel could also function as a terrifying "Tunnel of Love."
I snapped a few quick photos with my cellphone and proceeded to lay my bike down so I could grab my DSLR camera to take better pictures. It was then that I was interrupted by a sound that stopped my heart from beating. It sounded like hissing. My first reaction was a snake. It's common to see snakes basking in the sun on bike trails when the weather is warm. I saw two of them that day and almost ran over one just a few miles before reaching the tunnel.

I spun around and looked but couldn't find anything resembling a snake; however, the sound appeared to be coming from somewhere around the bike. I bent down listening for the source of the noise. It was then I figured it out, and the realization punched me square in the gut -- my front bike tire was leaking air.

To be fair, the snakes I saw that day sounded and looked like a deflating tire.
I'm having a hard time remembering what words I uttered upon discovering my dilemma. I'm confident most of them weren't PG-rated, but in my mind, the phrase "no, no, no" kept playing on repeat. I rotated the tire trying to locate the source of the leak. Sure enough, I found a small tear no more than a half centimeter in length, and I could feel the 70 P.SI. worth of air escaping with each passing second.

I looked around hoping to find someone that could assist me. Before I arrived at the tunnel, I noticed a tour guide lecturing a group of tourists; however, they had already started on a path that ascends the mountain over the tunnel. I began walking with my bike and came across another cyclist. He had panniers (saddlebags) mounted on his bike like I did, and based off the amount of supplies he possessed, I concluded he was traveling long distance. I hoped he had at least a patch kit.

I approached him, introduced myself and told him of my problem. As nice as he was, he also did not have a patch kit. He did lend me a tube of fast-drying glue to try to at least plug the hole in the tire, but it had close to no effect. I tried using it a second time, but it still proved frivolous. I thanked him for attempting to help me, he wished me best of luck, and I decided to start walking my bike in search of a solution.

My best hope was finding a store that sold patch kits somewhere in Paw Paw. When I had looked at the town the first time, though, it didn't appear to be the type of place to have a bike shop. I couldn't see anything resembling a Wal-Mart or a box store, either. Regardless, I had no other options available, as I would later find out from a local that the nearest towns were at least 5 miles away and also lacked bike shops.

If Paw Paw were anything like this mall in Morgantown, West Virginia, it wasn't going to help me find any of the supplies I needed.
Along the way to Paw Paw, I called my dad and my girlfriend, Cassidy, and let them know of my situation. Dad lives too far away to pick me up, but he's wise when it comes to fixing just about anything. If I ever needed a MacGyver, he was the one. He told me of a few probable places that might carry patch kits. He wished me luck, and all the while, he didn't ridicule me for my lack of common sense not to pack extra supplies. I appreciated that, even though I deserved it.

I phoned up Cassidy next. She was working until 6:30 that evening. It was about 1:30 at this point, so if it came down to her picking me up, I either had to wait or she had to bail out of work early. I wasn't feeling keen about choosing either option, so I told her I would try to find a patch kit in the meantime. She told me to keep in touch just in case, and I said I would. I didn't want her to try to drive to Paw Paw. It's a charming town, but it's also in scenic nowhere. Looking at Google Maps, the route from our apartment to Paw Paw is confusing and involves back roads with probably little to no cellphone reception. I didn't see a point in getting us both stuck in West Virginia with no place to go.
With my luck, Google Maps would tell Cassidy to take this road.
I walked into Paw Paw and noticed I had few options to choose from as to where I would find a patch kit. The two immediate choices were a Dollar General and a Liberty gas station. I chose Dollar General first. I chained my bike to a guard rail and walked inside. I spent about 10 minutes walking up and down aisles looking for patch kits. I found everything else, including refrigerated beer (something you don't see in a Dollar General in Pennsylvania), but not what I needed. I went up to the register and asked the cashier if the store carried patch kits. She said no, but she told me about a NAPA-affiliated car shop not far up the road. Both of us figured it would be my best bet. I went to Liberty first just to make sure it didn't have patch kits, and I also asked for directions to the car shop. That cashier pointed me in the right direction, and I made my way to the store.

I arrived at the car shop, set my bike down and walked inside. The store was about the size of a small bedroom and smelled like an ash tray, but it looked like a place that would have patch kits. I approached the man sitting behind the desk and asked if he had any in stock. He did -- at one point. As it turned out, about a week earlier, a farmer came in seeking patch kits to repair a tractor tire. The store had 68 kits in stock, the man said, and the farmer bought all of them. Did this farmer run over a family of porcupines?

I'm sure the man behind the counter could sense my dismay, so he called over another person and asked if he knew where I could find a patch kit. The other man said he knew a woman down the road who rents out her house as a bed and breakfast for bicyclists. He thought she might have extra bike supplies. He left the store and drove to her house. I waited for about 15 minutes until the man returned and said the woman didn't have what I needed. He did bring a spare tube from his own mountain bike, but it was too large for my wheel.

Over the next hour, more people kept walking in, and the man behind the counter asked them all if they had spare patch kits sitting around. My situation seemed helpless until one of the store's mechanics found a small patch kit somewhere in the back. We took the tire off the bike, and the mechanic patched up the tube. He filled it using an air compressor so that it had enough air to get me back to Cumberland. The mechanic helped place the tube back on the wheel and secured the rubber tire over it. Nearly two hours and $14 later, I could start my journey to end this nightmare.

Just before I left, I took a quick glance at the tire and noticed a small portion of it bulging over the metal rim. This made me a bit concerned since I never saw something like this before. I asked the man who had offered his spare tube if this would pose a problem on my ride back. He said it shouldn't -- but you never know what could happen. Those words sounded ominous. I'm the kind of person who only deals in absolutes. Any slight doubt in my mind makes me paranoid beyond belief. I didn't have many other options to choose from, though. Apparently I had the only patch kit in the state of West Virginia, and it was already 3 p.m. I had about three hours to get back to my car in Cumberland. Any lost time meant the possibility that I would be riding in the dark. In addition to not having spare tire supplies, I also failed to bring a flashlight. If there were any plus side to my situation, it was that I had the chance to win a Darwin Award this year.

I just hope they use this flattering photo of me when they present my posthumous award.
I opted to ride and hoped for the best. I thanked the mechanics an uncountable amount of times for their assistance and made my way back to Cumberland.

The return ride started without any significant complications; however, I did notice the front wheel looked as though it had an uneven rotation because of the bulging portion of the tire, but I had confirmed that suspicion before leaving, so it was something I just had to live with.

The first two hours of the trip back were going better than I had anticipated, despite my tire issue. I stopped on occasion to drink water, and I happened to see that the bulge in the front tire almost seemed to be growing in size. I wrote it off as being my paranoia at play and kept trekking on. I was so confident I had resolved my troubles that I text Cassidy to let her know I was only an hour away from Cumberland and would be home soon.

At this point, reaching Cumberland would feel like arriving in paradise.
At about the two-hour mark, however, I became concerned. For some reason, I could feel and hear the front tire rubbing against the brake pads. That seems normal, except I wasn't applying the brakes -- in addition to the fact that I disconnected the front brakes before starting my ride that day because they don't work well. This set off an alarm in my head, so I decided to stop and inspect the tire.

I got off the bike and pushed it forward a bit to see how the tire looked when rotating. Sure enough, the bulge had grown so large that it was making contact with the brakes each time it spun around. I attempted to loosen the brakes more to prevent this from happening, but they were already disconnected as far as they could separate, so I was out of luck. This meant I was going to have to finish my ride fighting the friction of my front tire trying to slow itself down. But hey, I still had a working tire, so it was better than having a flat.

No more than five seconds after that thought ran through my head, I heard what sounded like a gunshot. I knew better, though, because I happened to be looking at the tire when the sound pierced the woods around me. I had just witnessed the tire's tube explode under the immense pressure that had been building up over the past two hours.

Paradise lost.
That was it, I thought. I could ride on a flat tire, but the wheel in front of me was nothing more than the metal rim and the useless rubber of the tire. That same panic that I mentioned earlier in this story during my episode in the woods just came back, except I was nowhere near my house, and I was on a trail that I had seen fewer than a dozen people riding all day.

I looked around to assess my options. On the left was the Potomac River (which despite my earlier joke, I was not going to attempt to swim), and to the right was the canal. On the hillside above the canal was a roadway, but there was no way for me to reach it because of the waterway blocking access to it.

I called Cassidy and Dad to update them on my situation. Both were worried, but there wasn't much they could do. I told them I had to start walking in the hopes I could find someone who could help me. What other option did I have? To my misfortune, my bike broke down about 10 miles from Cumberland, and there was hardly a town between there and my current location. It would take me hours to reach Cumberland by foot, but the alternative was sitting in the woods with no shelter. I grabbed my bike and resumed my journey back.

"After all we've been through, why would you betray me?!?!"
I spent this time walking with my bike to reflect on the horrible mistake I had made to not stock up on tubes and patch kits. The first flat tire was a satisfactory lesson, I thought, but the exploding tube drove the message home -- though it was a bit excessive. I kicked myself for failing to follow my gut and buy the extra supplies I needed while I was staring at a bike shop. I remembered the quote someone used to tell me: "Hindsight is 20/20." I think I might get that tattooed somewhere so I never forget it.

Out of all the misfortunes that occurred that day, I had the luck that my bike broke down just outside of Spring Gap, which has a campground operated by the National Park Service. I passed through it earlier in the day and noticed several people there, so I figured this would be my best chance of finding help.

As I walked into the campground, however, I couldn't see anyone around. Then I came across a sign that had emergency numbers to contact the NPS. I looked at the time and realized it was 4:45 p.m. I wasn't sure if park rangers had a 9 to 5 job like other people, but I figured I shouldn't hesitate to call just in case. I dialed the number and crossed my fingers. The service was spotty, but someone did answer. I told the woman my situation and location and requested assistance. She said she would try to contact someone to help, but suggested I might want to consider getting a cab if the former option didn't pan out. A cab? In the middle of rural Maryland? That option sounded like nonsense.

I had a better chance of tying a bunch of turtles together to form a raft and riding that back to Cumberland than I did finding a cab.
 Regardless, the woman took my cellphone number and said she would try to get back to me. I thanked her and hung up. I happened to notice another woman getting out of her car about 100 yards from where I was standing. It couldn't hurt to ask her for help, I figured. I walked toward her with my sorry excuse for a bike so she could see how desperate my situation was. I started off by asking her where the nearest town was. She responded that it was Cumberland. I had hoped something was closer so I didn't have to inconvenience her, but I told her what happened to my bike and that my car was parked in Cumberland. She then offered to give me a ride there.

"Are you sure?" I asked, trying to be nice, though it was a dumb gesture considering my lack of available options. She said yes, and I thanked her about 40 times. I chained my bike to a nearby post because we had no way to store it in her sedan. I removed the panniers and any other valuables from the bike and placed them in the car's trunk. We got in the car and started to drive toward Cumberland.

Even though she offered to help me, I still felt bad because she had just arrived at the campground to go for a run on the trail. Not only that, but I probably looked and smelled like crap because I was covered in dust and sweat from riding all day. She didn't seem to judge me, though.

During the drive to Cumberland, we chatted about restaurants, jobs, our favorite cities in Maryland, etc. She seemed more like a friend I hadn't seen in a while than a stranger I had just met for the first time. I found out she was from West Virginia, so if I learned anything from this fiasco, it was that West Virginians are amiable and generous folks.

Thank you, glorious state of West Virginia.
On the way to Cumberland, the National Park Service contacted me and said they had a park ranger coming to pick me up. I felt foolish that I was now wasting some ranger's time, but I told the caller that I had found a ride, but I thanked her for her efforts in trying to assist me. I owe a "thank you" to the National Park Service, as well -- and Theodore Roosevelt.

We arrived at the lot in Cumberland where my car was parked. I had no cash on me, but I offered to withdraw money from an ATM so I could at least pay the woman for her generosity. She rebuked my offer and said she was happy to help. I thanked her another 30 times and unloaded my supplies from her trunk, and she drove back to Spring Gap to resume her run. I got into my car and made my way back there, as well, so I could fetch my bike. I saw the woman again and jokingly warned her that she should start her run before my car blew a flat tire. She laughed and went on her way, and I did the same. I had a lot of time to reflect on my mistakes during the hour and 15 minute drive home.

Much like the first story I told, this situation could have been avoided with simple preparation beforehand. For the most part, I had the essentials like food, water, and a phone. What I lacked were some of the most important supplies for a bike such as tubes, patch kits and an air pump in case of an emergency. I still kick myself that I saw the bike shop before starting my ride and didn't take the opportunity to walk in and pick up spare parts. It wasn't so much an issue of stupidity as it was ego. I know I should carry these supplies every time I get on a bike, especially if I'm riding in an area that's far away from people.

The irony is what caused the leak in the first place -- a small shard of glass. Who would think you could run over glass on a bike trail in the woods? I'm guessing my flat didn't occur on the trail, but on the highway when I rode into Paw Paw the first time. It's not uncommon to find broken glass along a roadway. The funny thing is that I didn't originally plan to ride to the town; I was seeking the Paw Paw Tunnel and made a wrong turn. Had I stayed on the trail the whole time, I might not have encountered my tire dilemma. But that's the lesson here: Emergencies are unexpected. With the proper preparation, I wouldn't have avoided getting a flat tire, but at least I would have had the tools necessary to fix my problem. I now know to assume everything and anything can happen, no matter how much confidence you have that it won't.

After my trip, my dad helped me avoid coming across the same issue with my tires in the future by purchasing patch kits, two spare tubes and a pump for my bike. He also outfitted the bike with new tubes and tires, so it's actually in better shape now than before my last ride. It should hold up for a long time, but at least now I feel a bit safer knowing I'll be ready in case something does fail on me. Learn from my mistake: Don't ever tell yourself you are "over-prepared."

The Dad-Approved Bicycle Tire Repair Kit (beer sold separately).
Editor's note: I wrote this post before taking another bike ride on the Great Allegheny Passage trail in May, which also starts in Cumberland. Despite having all the aforementioned supplies this time around, I rode 15 miles to Frostburg, Maryland, where I then broke my bike chain and had to find a way to ride 15 miles back to Cumberland. But that's another story to come. -- Yerms

Apr 4, 2017

The Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike

At the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike, the tolls are free ... and so is the terror.
One aspect of Pennsylvania that fascinates me is the remnants of its old transportation infrastructure. Venture anywhere across the state, and it's almost guaranteed you can find an old railroad that's been converted into a bike trail, or an algae-covered waterway that once served as a canal for shipping goods and people.

During your travels, you might hop onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike to reach your destination. You can't talk about transportation in Pa. without mentioning the Turnpike. It's the most infamous highway in the state. It was also known as "America's Super Highway" when it first opened in fall 1940, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Despite this, many Pennsylvanians hate using the Turnpike, whether it's because of traffic congestion, never-ending construction or the cost to drive on it. For these reasons, many motorists will avoid the massive roadway, even if that means taking a less-convenient route.

They do have an alternative, however: A section of the Turnpike exists that has no tolls, no traffic or road work. There's only one stipulation -- you have to leave your vehicle behind.

If that doesn't deter you, then you should consider a trip to the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Oddly enough, the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike has fewer potholes than most active roads in the state.
As the name suggests, the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike is a 13-mile section of the original highway in south-central Pa. that was bypassed in 1968, according to the FHA. This portion of road -- east of Breezewood in Bedford County and west of Hustontown in Fulton County -- consists of three tunnels and a former travel plaza, the latter which has been reduced to an empty parking lot. Enough of the historic highway still exists that visitors can walk, run or bike it at their own risk.

"At your own risk" meaning you don't mind trekking into the depths of Hell.
 So why did the state decide to ditch 13 miles of one of its most-used highways? It's because it became too crowded.

The original four-lane, 160-mile-long Pennsylvania Turnpike opened in autumn 1940. It wasn't long before people took notice of how convenient the highway was. The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission released a report showing that more than 2 million vehicles used the highway just one year after its debut, according to the FHA.

Over the next two decades, it seemed as though the Pennsylvania Turnpike only grew in popularity. By 1960, traffic became such an issue that vehicles were backed up as long as 5 miles from the tunnel entrances, according to the FHA. The issue was that the Turnpike reduced to one lane in each direction in the tunnels, causing the backups. You can tell from my previous photo -- inside the Sideling Tunnel -- just how narrow the tunnels were.

The Turnpike Commission conducted a study to find a way to circumvent the congestion. The recommendation was that the Turnpike expand the Blue, Kittatinny, Tuscarora, and Allegheny Mountain tunnels with new parallel tunnels, according to the FHA. The study also suggested bypassing the Sideling Hill, Rays Hill and Laurel Hill tunnels. The Turnpike Commission went forward with the plan, and with it the now-abandoned portion of the highway came to be.

Nearly five decades of negligence has taken its toll on the Abandoned Pa. Turnpike. Tall weeds and cracked asphalt are a common sight at the former roadway. When you walk through the tunnels, you will find pieces of concrete lying on the ground because the ceilings have begun to fall apart.

Spray-paint "artists" have also used the tunnels' walls as canvases for their work. Some of the paintings are elaborate, but about 75 percent of them are swear words, racial slurs and an uncountable amount of spray-paint genitalia.

Water seeps through openings in the tunnels, making them damp even during the driest of summer days. The rooms where tunnel workers once worked are now windowless and filled with dust and rust. Other than natural lighting at both ends, the tunnels have no working electricity, so anyone traveling through them needs a flashlight or headlamp to prevent falling into a pit.

Make sure to bring water-proof shoes or a kayak if you go through the tunnels.
Just because the old roadway is falling apart doesn't mean it's not usable. Because there has been no traffic on it for almost 50 years, the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike is still in decent condition. Parts of it have chipped away, but for the most part, people can walk and run on it with ease. Bicyclists can ride on the highway, provided they have lighting to see their way through the tunnels. Even when I visited the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike last summer on a 90-degree summer day, there were still people riding the old road.

Nothing says an enjoyable bike ride quite like a scorching-hot, cracked roadway with no shade.
The visitor traffic has attracted enough interest that some folks have started an effort to revitalize the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike for a new purpose.

The "Pike 2 Bike" project is an initiative to turn the former highway into a revitalized public trail. The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission helped start the effort by selling the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike to the Southern Alleghenies Conservancy for $1 in 2001, according to the Pike 2 Bike project official website. That's not a bad deal considering a bottle of water from a vending machine can cost nearly three times that amount.

(On a side note, you're going to notice that the Pike 2 Bike website says the Turnpike is about 130 years old despite the fact I said it opened in 1940. That's because construction of the "Pennsylvania Turnpike" began back in the 1880s as a railway route, according to the FHA website. The work wasn't completed, even though 4.5 miles of tunnel were dug through seven mountains, according to the website. The "actual" Turnpike we know and love [or hate] today opened in 1940. Anyway, just covering myself here. Now back to your regular programming.)

Since about 2003, the "Friends of the Pike 2 Bike" committee has controlled the effort to convert the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike into a trail, according to its website. About 14 years later, however, the old roadway remains about the same. The main issue seems to be funding. A study showed that the project would cost about $3.5 million, according to the Pike 2 Bike website.

Some of the anticipated repairs for the trail would include stabilizing the tunnels, adding lighting and solving drainage issues. There are other proposed amenities like trail heads, toilets, signage and parking lots, according to the website. The committee is also considering paving one side of the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike and keeping the other side untouched for historical value, according to the website. I'm left to ponder how the committee will handle the abundant graffiti in the tunnels -- whether some of it will be preserved or if it will be eliminated as a whole.

The price tag for the Pike 2 Bike project is a bit high, but I think it is a worthwhile endeavor. As it is, the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike can be dangerous in some areas, especially the tunnels where there is little lighting and plenty of places to trip or even fall. During my trip last summer, my friends and I noticed several narrow, but deep, pits along the walls in the Sideling Tunnel. They're large enough that an unknowing passerby can fall 7 or 8 feet down and suffer serious injury. Falling concrete and potholes also present liabilities. Repairs are going to be necessary to ensure no one leaves the proposed trail in an ambulance.

A revitalized trail could help stimulate local economies, as well. Pennsylvania municipalities such as Pittsburgh and Jim Thorpe have reaped the benefits of being bike friendly. Pittsburgh serves as the western start of the Great Allegheny Passage, a nearly 150-mile rail-trail that starts in the "Iron City" and ends in Cumberland, Maryland.

Point State Park in Pittsburgh serves as the western start to the Great Allegheny Passage.
The GAP is one of the most publicized bike trails in the country, and because of this notoriety, more people are riding it and visiting the towns along its route. Businesses such as hotels, shops and restaurants can only benefit from tired and hungry bike riders looking for a place to rest for a bit.

Jim Thorpe also experiences a similar economic boon because of its proximity to the D&L Trail, which extends from the edge of town to White Haven and now Mountain Top because of a recent trail expansion.

Jim Thorpe has a bike rental shop not far from the D&L Trail. Behind the store is the Molly Maguires Pub & Steakhouse, which I have eaten at several times while riding my bike on the D&L Trail.
 Bicyclists tend to be tourists, as well, so any town near a rail-trail can cash in on an opportunity such as the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike. Breezewood already accommodates motorists on the active Pennsylvania Turnpike with numerous hotels and eateries, so having the abandoned portion of the highway can only mean more tourism money coming in.

One of the last reasons Pike 2 Bike can be beneficial is because it could help preserve a significant part of Pennsylvania's history. If it continues to receive little maintenance, the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike could deteriorate to the extent where it is unusable to bicyclists and walkers/runners. The former highway is a significant part of the state's history. It is a remnant of one of Pa.'s most ambitious transportation projects. The current Turnpike has been altered several times over the years, and the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike is a physical reminder of how the highway has needed to change over the years to meet transportation demands.

The Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike might just be an old road, but the novelty of its existence attracts people from across the state and the country. People are fascinated by abandoned locations such as Centralia (the mostly deserted Pennsylvania town with an active mine fire below it). These places create a feeling of uneasiness, but also a sense of curiosity and adventure, too. This atmosphere of wonder has attracted people to the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike for decades now, and it likely will for years to come.

If you're interested in seeing the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike, you can visit the Pike 2 Bike website here to get the most accurate directions. Make sure you have flashlight and possibly a jacket if you go through the tunnels since they are dark, damp and cold, regardless the time of year. Don't forget to bring your sense of wonder, too.